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Glue Sniffing

Volume 22: debated on Tuesday 20 April 1982

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Mr. Garel-Jones.]

11.45 pm

I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me the opportunity once again to draw attention to the growing menace of glue sniffing, particularly in my constituency and those of my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) and other hon. Friends in the Tyne and Wear area. I hope that they get the opportunity to participate in the debate.

Although the problem is commonly referred to as glue sniffing, the term is misleading. The practice involves inhaling the poisonous vapours of many products in common domestic and industrial use. Most hon. Members appreciate the variety of substances used, many of which are cheap and easily accessible to children and youngsters with pocket money. They include glues, adhesives, rubber solution, dyes, hair sprays, paraffin, metal polish, gas lighter fuel and many other products.

I ask hon. Members whether they appreciate all the ways in which the substances are taken into the system. They can be sniffed directly from a can, tin or bottle, or aerosols can be sprayed directly into the mouth or nose. Solvents are mixed with drinks. Handkerchiefs can be saturated and held to the mouth or nose. To heighten or speed up the effect, a bag can be placed over the head.

The House will share a sense of revulsion at such practices, but it would not be our business if no harm resulted to the users or to society generally. As usual, there is disagreement among the experts on likely long-term effects of addiction, but it has been established that damage can occur to the liver and the kidneys. In the short term there is also harm which, in most instances, is temporary. The user becomes confused, he suffers from blurred or double vision, his speech is slurred, his body actions become unco-ordinated and he can become dizzy. This is all bad enough, but the reason why the craze is a killer, even to someone trying it for the first time, is the methods used.

The campaign to prevent children having access to plastic or polythene bags was well-founded and has been successful in reducing the number of accidents. Youngsters can put a bag over their head and achieve a sense of intoxication involving dizziness and loss of consciousness. The House will appreciate what can happen. Some have suffocated, some have choked on their own vomit and, because the practice is carried out secretly, often in out-of-the-way places, other dangers arise with serious accidents on building sites, railway lines, river embankments and other potentially dangerous spots.

It is alarming that out of 22 deaths officially reported as arising from glue or solvent sniffing in 1980, only three involved people over 16 years of age. People involved with the problem have told me that children as young as eight years old have been found trying this revolting practice.

Getting facts has proved difficult, and I hope that there has been some attempt nationally to measure this problem. I know that the matter has been discussed previously in the House and that the Government are aware of the problem not only in my area but in other areas.

The impression of the police, social workers, health workers and education staff in my area is that the number of referrals and incidents is increasing and it is only the tip of the iceberg of what is happening in practice. The Nothumbria police report a steady increase in the number of court cases where offences have allegedly been committed under the influence of solvents and other such substances or where there has been violence towards the arresting officer or other persons. The police also report that referrals have doubled. Referrals to South Tyneside social services rose by 50 per cent. over one year and those to the educational welfare by one third.

Some of the professionals involved argue that it is just a craze and that most youngsters give it up after one or two tries. That may be true—I hope so—but once is once too often. In my area, two lads started to sniff petrol fumes while in a local cafe. The fumes ignited, causing an explosion which severely damaged the cafe. Fortunately, no one was killed.

It is a sad reflection on the state of things when our children resort to this sickening practice for kicks, because they believe that adults disapprove, because they are bored, or in order too keep up with their friends. It is disturbing because most of them can easily get hold of the substances. A lethal dose can be bought with the weekly pocket money.

Some experts also tell me that only a minority become addicted, and that usually these young people come from unhappy homes, or have had previous problems. They are the ones who may have been in trouble with the police. However, that is not always so, as has been the case with the misuse of drugs generally. I do not believe that I am being an alarmist when I say that we have a craze on our hands.

I sometimes do not agree with all that chief constables say, but I certainly agree with the chief constable of Northumbria when he said, addressing a conference in Newcastle last year:
"Solvent abuse is not merely a cult, as some experts would have it—it causes death and misery to many".
I also agree with his question:
"Do we go ahead and do something or do we dither and hold back hoping that it will go away?"
In my area people have not dithered or sat back, for they recognise that this is a problem which has to be dealt with, and locally they are seeking the full co—operation of parents, schools, the welfare and other statutory agencies. It is a matter in which everyone has had to learn about the problem, and then decide the quickest and most effective way of stopping it. After meetings of various interests in the borough, South Tyneside decided that the best approach was to set up a joint committee involving environmental health, social services and education representatives, and inviting the police, the probation service, the health officer, the juvenile court magistrates and the press to participate.

The local press has done a good service in publicising this dangerous practice. The Shields Gazette, the Sunderland Echo, the Northern Echo, the Newcastle Journal and the South Tyneside Post have all contained articles explaining the dangers, and I pay special tribute to the Newcastle Evening Chronicle which, on Thursday 15 April, started a campaign, not to exaggerate or to sensationalise, but to emphasise the dangers of sniffing.

Guidance has already been issued to teachers, social workers and other professionals as a first step, but it is recognised that joint in-service training is needed, and it is encouraging that the various professionals are anxious to get together in detection of the problem and with other help.

It is also recognised that the problem is best attacked by making sure that all parents are on their guard and know the symptoms to look for. The Gateshead health authority unit has already produced an excellent leaflet telling parents of the things to watch for. This again has been pointed out in the series of articles in the Evening Chronicle. Mention should be made of the good work being carried out by Dennis O'Connor of Newcastle university on this subject. Most authorities in the Tyne and Wear area, together with South Tyneside, are issuing leaflets and broadsheets to the parents explaining the symptoms to watch for.

I fully appreciate that the range of substances is such that control is difficult—perhaps, in some cases, impossible. The series of articles in the Evening Chronicle is attempting to obtain the voluntary co-operation of shopkeepers, asking them to he on their guard and to take care when selling these substances to youngsters. The considered view of all those in South Tyneside concerned with the problem—professionals, councillors and constituents—is that there is need for further action.

It is requested that at least solvent-based glues and similar substances should be put on restricted sale, like cigarettes and alcohol—although I know that that would be almost impossible to do, and that it would require legislation.

At a time when local authorities are having to curtail their existing services, and bearing in mind that this problem is increasing every year, money should be made available by central Government to set up special clinics, where help is at hand. These can be established in the various areas, but that would require money from central funds, and I hope that the Minister will consider this.

Death through solvent inhaling is a somewhat remote consideration for some of the potential sniffers, but for many individuals and their families it is a tragic consequence that cannot be ignored. I hope that the Government will do something positive to help the voluntary organisations in the local authorities throughout Britain and the campaigns run by local newspapers.

11.55 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) has highlighted many of the horrors of this odious, habit-forming disease. I emphasise that it is a disease, although unfortunately it is not often recognised. It is not new. It swept America 15 years ago and there are still considerable problems in that country.

Many local authorities have been very concerned about the problem. Newcastle city council had a major debate on the subject in November 1981. Had I the time to quote from the speeches made in that debate, right across the political spectrum, the full horror of young lives destroyed would be brought home to the House and, more especially, to the Minister. My hon. Friend has rightly paid tribute to the laudable campaign of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. It is not a scare campaign, but a campaign to highlight to parents and others the consequences of the disease.

My hon. Friend mentioned deaths and I can quote some from the newspaper campaign. Michael Goodwin, aged 18, died from glue sniffing. George Donnelly, aged 20, was found dead in his lodgings after sniffing glue. Robert Morton, aged 25, was found dead by his wife. Michael Bamborough, aged 15, was found dead. Noel Clynch, aged 15, was found dead. David Lott, aged 18, was found dead. Stephen Hughes, after inhaling the contents of a fire extinguisher, was found dead.

That is tragic enough—nothing can be more final than death—but other problems arise from the cases that fall short of death. Long-term health is affected, there are thefts, burglaries, muggings, recent cases of schools burnt down, and on Tyneside one young man, after a glue-sniffing exercise, ran amok with a bayonet, attacked all those in the vicinity and inflicted serious injuries upon them. All the incidents occurred after bouts of glue sniffing.

I hope that the Minister can supply some national figures about the size of the problem, if such figures exist. If they do not, the House should ask why. Many people work hard in this area and my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow has paid tribute to Mr. Dennis O'Connor of Newcastle university, who operates a clinic and publishes many documents. I have an example with me which I would be happy to furnish to the Minister. He not only draws attention to the prevention and cure of the disease, but highlights the early warning signs to parents and says where they can turn for assistance. That is one of the important matters. The glue sniffers and their families need active support.

As my hon. Friend said, we recognise the effects of tobacco and alcohol on young people. We have legislation that prevents them from purchasing alcohol and tobacco. If it is important to have that legislation, surely it is important to have legislation on solvents. We are trying to be constructive. We recognise the problems, but it is important that people are aware that they have somewhere to go to seek help when they are in need.

I support my hon. Friend's remarks. It is not beyond the wit of man to add something to the aerosol sprays that will make people physically sick if they try to inhale them. Those are the actions that the Government could and should take.

12.1 am

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) for raising this important issue. There has been a major campaign in our area with the local authority, the area health authority and the police, responsibly backed up by the local newpapers—the Newcastle Evening Chronicle and the Shields Gazette.

Last autumn I wrote to the Minister on this issue, making three brief propositions. The first related to marking, the second was on restrictive sales and the third concerned publicity. At the time the Minister was not able to accept the proposals, although he wrote an accommodating letter.

I shall put some more proposals to the Minister. As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cowans), said, glue sniffing is a killer. Young people are afraid of death. We should use the hard sell in getting across the dangers of glue sniffing. We should increase the publicity, emphasising that glue sniffing can kill. What research is being done into the use of aversive additives to the substances in order to make them less attractive to the glue sniffer?

12.3 am

I am sure that the House is grateful to the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon) for raising this topic. I should like to take the chance of setting out the Government's view on glue sniffing and of telling the House about some of the steps that they propose to take in response to that problem.

It is two years since the House last debated what is more accurately called solvent misuse. In this time, concern among hon. Members and among the general public has grown. Sometimes this concern has been fuelled by somewhat alarmist journalism. At the same time, around the country those responsible for the well-being of the community, and of young people in particular, have been developing the response to solvent misuse best suited to their localities. I am referring to the police, social workers, teachers, youth workers, health workers, doctors, and, in some places, retailers. Together with parents they have been getting on with the job.

Where that is happening, newspapers have tended not to be alarmist but have rather supported the local response. I have been interested to note the helpful campaign mounted by the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, and I shall ensure that a copy of the report of the debate is sent to its editor.

Hon. Members have urged the Government to action. Some take the view that the problem can be tackled only by legislation: either to control the sale, possession or use of solvents, or to control the chemical formulation of solvent products. The Government do not share that view. Others have pressed for steps which will support and enhance the response of the workers in the field rather than measures to take the job away from them.

In sifting the advice, the Government have looked carefully at the nature of this problem. For many sniffers this seems to be a transitory activity, taken up in order to experiment and most seem to give it up without having sustained any permanent physical damage. The greatest risks while actually sniffing or from short-term misuse are either accidental while intoxicated, or from the method of sniffing.

I am particularly concerned for youngsters whose experimentation leads to prolonged misuse of solvents, from which they may develop damage to their nervous system, liver or kidney. The causation of such damage is not, however, clear-cut; it may depend on the solvent inhaled, the concentration inhaled and the length of time over which it is used. It must be said that that is an area where more research would be helpful.

We cannot say with conviction, as some have, that certain solvents cause no physical damage. More research is needed, but the evidence does not justify the alarm generated in some quarters and we must always be careful not to encourage some to experiment just because they hear about this craze. The evidence seems to be that in only a relatively small proportion does solvent misuse become a chronic problem, and those in the field are finding that this minority already have other problems. Solvent abuse, it often appears, is an expression of these other, deeper problems. Reliable information on the numbers of sniffers or the proportion whose misuse becomes prolonged is not available. But the numbers are very small when compared with, for example, the number of young people who died in accidents on our roads last year. None the less, I understand and fully share the widespread concern for youngsters who sniff solvents.

What should the Government do? We have looked, as some hon. Members have urged, at statutory controls on the sale, possession and use of solvents, perhaps by extending the Misuse of Drugs Act. We have found strong objections and overwhelming practical difficulties to applying this sort of control to everyday household products. The House can imagine the uproar, were, for example, sales of modelling glue and shoe cleaners to be restricted. It would not be easy to set an appropriate age for restrictions. Experience in other areas indicates that whatever age was chosen might be difficult to enforce. Traders would find it difficult, as do publicans, to judge with reasonable accuracy, and there would always be the possibility that young people would evade the controls by getting someone else to buy the solvent for them, or they would misuse solvents in their homes, or resort to stealing. Restrictions could, moreover, result in sniffing being driven underground with consequent added dangers. I should further mention that many of those most active in service provision in this area are opposed to legislative controls. However, it may be possible to exercise voluntary restraint based on common sense, thus avoiding the difficulties inherent in legislation as is happening in some areas.

Some have said that the police need more powers, but it seems that the police can act when offences are committed under solvent intoxication. The police in the constituency of the hon. Member for Jarrow work helpfully with the social services department to aid solvent sniffing youngsters. This is just one way in which local services are working together across the country.

Others have suggested that the chemical formulae of solvent-based products could be altered to make the product unattractive to sniffers. This would be an enormous task. Any change would have to be consistent with the product still being effective for its intended purpose. Manufacturers would need to find a formula which did not deter normal usage. It would have to be toxicologically safe, and not offer other hazards. Every solvent-based product would have to be changed, otherwise sniffers would misuse the remaining unchanged products. I am informed that some parts of the United States have attempted this, but the federal authorities have not been able to commend this approach.

All our inquiries suggest that the problem, as I said at the beginning, is being dealt with by existing statutory and voluntary services working together, with parents and sometimes retailers, using their skills to respond in a way best suited to their localities and the children's needs. This seems to be the way to tackle solvent abuse.

Parents are, of course, in the front line and they look to the social services, the schools, the National Health Service and the police for support. They look also to voluntary services for help. Naturally, parents look to retailers to exercise responsible restraint in serving youngsters with solvent products. Let none of us seek to undermine parents' efforts in helping solvent sniffing youngsters, nor underestimate the support that they expect from all of us. By strengthening statutory and voluntary services capabilities we intend to support parents. I want to tell the House toninght how the Government propose to support this work—how we shall help the helpers.

I should like to answer the suggestion that there should be specialist units or clinics for solvent misusers. There is no evidence that such an initiative is necessary or would be helpful. It is part and parcel of existing services deciding how to respond locally, that they should decide whether specialist resources are needed and how to provide these from their health, local authority or other services. This is happening in Avon and in Northamptonshire.

What have the Government done so far? Some hon. Members will know of a seminar held at Guy's hospital in London last November which brought together researchers, industry, the police and people from the care professions, and I understand that seminar papers are to be published shortly in the journal "Human Toxicology".

My hon. Friend the Member for Paddington (Mr. Wheeler) has suggested the making of a training film for parents and professionals likely to come into contact with solvent sniffers and this project is being put in hand by the Central Office of Information. We shall be inviting industry to co-finance the film. That much is started.

After consultations with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Education and Science, the Home Department, the Departments for Wales and Northern Ireland and my hon. Friend the Minister fo Consumer Affairs, I can inform the House that in addition to the film we are exploring the possibility of a book, perhaps based on the Guy's seminar, as an aid for professionals, and a paper addressed to the medical profession is to appear shortly in my Department's journal "Health Trends". Officials will consult retailers' representatives on voluntary restrain by traders. They will report on whether the circumstances in which voluntary restraint can be helpful and effective, actually warrant active encouragement, and, if so, how.

Subject to receiving suitable applications, we shall fund studies into solvent abuse. Since the House last debated this problem, inquiries have shown that the most reliable information on the prevalence of solvent sniffing will come from small-scale studies. It may assist local services if responses to the problem are evaluated. Therefore, we shall fund, in particular, studies of the prevalence and of effective service responses to solvent sniffing.

I have said that we must act with sensitivity to support the commendable work that is being done by local statutory and voluntary services. Those who have contributed to the debate have shown clearly that local authorities and voluntary bodies in their areas are already working hard in this sphere. I hope very much that some of the initiatives that I have mentioned will be of assistance. My officials will shortly be consulting representatives of the voluntary services to learn what more the Government might do to strengthen and enhance their responses. I shall have placed in the Library in due course copies of the memorandum, the book to which I have referred and "Health Trends". We intend to rely on and to support those in the community best able to do the job.

However, it is worth recalling that we live in a society in which each individual has a responsibility for his or her own health. We must assist parents—I make this point over and over again because in many instances they are the ones who need a lot of help—to teach their own children. This responsibility must be exercised with common sense so that it is put over in an understandable way. This approach, rather than Government intervention, could be the main safeguard against the hazards of glue sniffing.

Everything that hon. Members have said will be carefully studied by my Department. That includes the ideas set out by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark) in his earlier letter and the two issues that he has raised tonight, with the various matters that the hon. Members for Jarrow and Newcastle upon Tyne, Central (Mr. Cowans) have drawn to the attention of the House. We shall gladly listen to anything else that they may care to submit which will supplement what I have already said about what the Government propose to do.

I hope that the Government's approach will be found to be a practical way forward. It seems to be the best way forward, and I hope that the hon. Member for Jarrow, who was fortunate enough to raise the matter on the Adjournment and give us the chance of debating it, will feel that it was worthwhile staying up until after midnight to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes past Twelve o' clock.